Follow the Mikvah!

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Have you ever immersed yourself in a mikvah? Probably not, unless you are an orthodox woman. Modern mikvahs look like what would be a very tiny swimming pool in Los Angeles. Yet going to the mikvah is an age-old requirement for Jewish women, as a kind of ritual purification after menstruation or an illness. Immersion in the mikvah – you have to be squeaky clean before you descend its steps into the water — can be a celebratory ritual, too – before a wedding, or after the birth of a child, or as part of a conversion ceremony. There are attendants to help you, like a spa. You recite beautiful prayers and feel wonderful afterwards. I immersed completely – not a strand of hair can show above the water — in the mikvah the day before I was ordained as a rabbi. I’m not orthodox. You don’t have to be orthodox to go to the mikvah. If you can’t swim, the attendant will kneel beside the pool and hold your hand.

Men can go as well, separately, and religious Jews often do – as bridegrooms perhaps or before the Sabbath. If it’s a conversion, the supporting Rabbi will accompany you.

There are strict standards to maintain, though. The mikvah’s water must be natural, spotlessly clean, and constantly circulating from a fresh source (oceans, rivers, spring-fed lakes, even rainwater or ice or snow collected to meet specific transport and handling regulations). It is usually housed in an enclosed space either built into the ground or attached to a building. It can’t be a portable arrangement. Most mikvahs today have water-purification and filtration systems, which makes the plumbing expensive to maintain.

Alternatively, you can simply immerse yourself completely in the sea three times and say the prayers, but there is the danger of currents sweeping you away, and the weather doesn’t always cooperate. So mikvahs are indoors. Of course, with indoor plumbing, hot water, and even luxury bathtubs available in North America today, many Jewish women no longer feel the need to go to the mikvah. Like an appendix, it seems unnecessary, an anachronism.

But the mikvah is not just about cleanliness of the body. It’s not a bath. You have to take a bath or shower and clip your nails BEFORE you enter the mikvah squeaky clean. There is a strong spiritual dimension involved. It’s a Jewish RITUAL bath, in which you immerse ALL of you. Three times, and with each immersion you say a special prayer, ending with the core Hebrew prayer, the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord I One”). Guests may sit behind a screen and offer prayers and blessings, even songs, as well. It’s an occasion.

And where there is a mikvah, you can be sure there will be a synagogue. Some people say, “Follow the money!” In this case, you can say, “Follow the mikvah!” That’s why people in Brazil were so excited when a centuries-old mikvah was discovered in Recife in the year 2000. Interested archeologists, who already possessed old maps and records, had started to dig – eight floors down — beneath a building in the old Street of the Jews (Rua dos Judeus). And they found it! So they knew. That’s where the oldest synagogue in the Americas had once been.

Yes, it was the site of the old Kahal Zur Israel synagogue, founded in 1630. A congregation of Jewish refugees from the Inquisition in Europe had prayed there until the conquering Portuguese banned Judaism in Brazil. So by 1654, the Jews were forced to flee again. Or else to hide their religion as conversos, sometimes in the interior wilds of Brazil. Eventually, they created prosperous sugar plantations and other thriving businesses and are credited with building up the economy of Brazil in many ways.

Although many Brazilian Jews left for Israel in 1948, about 120,000 Jews still populate Brazil today, largely centered in the big cities of Sao Paulo or Rio de Janiero, home of Carnival. Unfortunately, in latter years, there has been some anti-Israel sentiment in Brazil, with its recently deposed President holding strong pro-Palestinian views.

But the Jewish community is still strong. And today, directly across the street from the recently rebuilt Kahal Zur Israel (which means “Rock of Israel”) synagogue in Recife stands a Jewish museum and cultural center. What makes the complex extraordinary is that part of the excavated mikvah is on display right there — protectively covered by glass. It was this ritual bath’s discovery that reactivated philanthropic interest in rebuilding the old synagogue in the spot where it once stood.

Although the museum and cultural center are stunningly beautiful, throughout the time I was there, my eyes kept returning to the excavated mikvah; my heart was in the mikvah, my thoughts spilling into its protected waters.

In Los Angeles, where I live, I serve from time to time as one of the dayanim – one of the three rabbis that make up a rabbinic court known as a Beit Din (House of Justice). After a conversion acceptance, it is a joyful part of our task to accompany the applicant to the mikvah to complete the conversion process. For me, each time it is a mystical moment, connecting all of those present to the Divine. Each time I have tears in my eyes, just as I did looking into this mikvah dating back to the 1600s — and excavated at the very beginning of the third millenium in what, for me, no longer felt like a foreign land.

May you find only beauty and fulfillment

Within the embrace of Judaism.

May it illuminate your path, enrich your life,

And elevate your soul.

May you bring to the diverse people of this world

All the sweetness and goodness you have to offer.

May you continue to grow from strength to strength,

And may you always be a blessing for the Jewish people.